January 01, 2007

Hope and Glory

“To give on paper any adequate idea of the Boondi-ki-Mahal is impossible. Jeypore Palace may be called the Versailles of India; Udaipur’s House of State is dwarfed by the hills round it and the spread of the Pichola Lake; Jodhpur’s House of Strife, grey towers on red rock, is the work of giants, but the Palace of Boondi, even in broad daylight, is such a Palace as men build for themselves in uneasy dreams—the work of goblins rather than of men.”

Thus says Kipling Sahib, in From Sea to Sea. And then, of course, he proceeds to do a more than adequate job of describing the place.

Bad joss for every other hack who has to follow that act, I’m thinking, as I perch on the wall of a watchtower in Taragarh fort, looking down over the Garh Palace, which occupies most of the slope down to the town of Bundi. It’s almost sunset, and the breeze, coming in from the Aravallis behind me, is gleefully slicing its way through to my bones. But the view, oh the view! All around me, birds discuss the day as they settle down to roost. Below, the shadows of the surrounding hills have crept across the town. But it’s bright enough to see that the place glows a… pale blue… well, one of those colours that women have names for, but being only a man, I can tell you that it’s a gentle hue, lighter than the lightest blue sky, with a softness about the edges that you see in pearls, and the moon on certain nights. The first lights are coming on, silver and gold dots in the grey. On the other side of the valley, trucks grumble their way up the slope of the road from Kota to Jaipur. A mosque’s call to prayer wafts above the traffic bustle, competing only with the “testing, testing” of a P.A. system getting ready for some festivity. A lone kite soars and swoops above it all Behind me, the air crackles with static—the tower, with its commanding view, is now used as a police lookout point, with a resident guardian of the law manning a radio set—and off to the right, a blood-red sun sinks below the haze on the horizon.

We suddenly remember that we don’t really know our way back down, and that we’d better get moving before it gets really dark. We stride through the gloaming, working our way through thorns that reach out to snag shirts and camera straps, hoping we didn’t step into any dung, and get to the car, parked near the back of the fort, where the ugly concrete and metal spire of a Doordarshan antenna has usurped the watchtower as the highest structure around.

If I had to find smart analogies for the Bundi state of mind, that evening helped define it. The recurring motif is a cheerful jumble of the ancient and the modern-but-not-quite-cutting-edge that, somehow, seems to work.

Bundi’s origins date back to the 12th Century. After Prithviraj Chauhan lost his battle against the invader Mohammed Ghauri, some Chauhan warriors moved base to the banks of the Chambal, defeated the resident Mina and Bhil tribals and set up their own kingdom of Hadoti. The fort itself was built in the 14th Century, and remained pretty much unconquered (as far as my shaky grasp of the history of the place tells me) through the centuries, though there was a certain amount of internecine blood-letting every now and then.

Below the fort, the Garh Palace’s array of buildings, terraces, courtyards, chhatris and domes occupy most of the slope between town and fort. They rise out of the hillside as if carved from the living rock, with various sections added on by monarchs seeking to leave their own stamp on the place, and the overall effect is one that Kipling describes best: “an avalanche of masonry ready to rush down and block the gorge.”

The town has remained off the tourist trail, losing out on the posh trade to the better-known Jaipur, Udaipur and Jodhpur, with the backpackers flocking to Puskhar. Very few Indian tourists find their way here. What little custom that trickles in is largely history buffs, a few others seeking to make their own “find,” family groups, a few middle-aged and elderly people looking for peace and quiet. There are no happening nightspots, so you’ll see very few gap year youngsters, and i could spot no ravers and stoners.

But Bundi wants it tourists. Badly. As word gets around that a travel magazine is checking out the area, doors open, literally and metaphorically. Tour guides give us free information as they shepherd their paying customers through the small section of the palace that is open to visitors; a caretaker opens up a bolted door to show us the little enclosed garden in the zenana, dominated by the huge carved arch built for a jhoola, for the ladies of the palace to enjoy the rains; another caretaker beseeches us to write nice things about the palace, because so few people stump up the entry fee every day that there’s really not enough revenue to restore more of the place. In the five hours we spend wandering around the palace, I count a total of around a dozen visitors. The gatekeeper tells me that on a good day, maybe 20 people come in, mostly foreigners. Everywhere we go, we hear the singsong “Hellllooo” of young men wanting to sell you things, to hire you bikes, to get you to hire them as guides, to eat in their restaurants. Bundi lives on the brink: not enough traffic to make it a total tourist trap, not enough to really keep it in good repair, not too much to overstrain the infrastructure, but just enough to keep everyone optimistic.

The palace had been pretty much abandoned in the 70s, after the death of the last Maharao Raja to rule Bundi. Locals told me that thieves and opportunists spirited away well nigh everything that wasn’t nailed down. At some point along the way, the royal family gave over a part of the palace to the government, but retained ownership of the rest.

It is only in the last three or four years that the Raja has opened up small section of the Garh Palace to visitors, at a very reasonable ten bucks a pop for Indian nationals, fifty for foreigners, and an additional Rs 50 per camera. Kumar Ranjit Singh Ji, the current holder of the title, divides his time between Bundi and Delhi, and has begun renovating parts of Moti Mahal (the palace in the city) as well. Soon to open to the public is a small museum, filled mainly with hunting trophies—tigers mainly—and photographs of royalty. Among the trophies are several bagged by Mountbatten, a close pal of the Maharaja, one shot by Errol Flynn, and another by Milton Reynolds, the inventor of the ball-point pen. Singh Ji wasn’t in residence when I visited, but his secretary chatted with me about the restoration work in progress. I get the impression that in the not-too-distant future, Moti Mahal might find itself joining the ranks of India’s palace hotels.

It will be a while, though, before any such plans could extend to the massive Garh Palace.

Which is a pity. Because the little that is open to view leaves you wanting more.
Budget half a day at least to take it in. Before you get to the ticket counter, take a gander at the large sign outside. Amidst the useful historical data, you’ll find the Kipling quote from the beginning of this article. Except that it refers to the “the work of gobblings,” which kind of fits.

The path up from the outer gate is a broad (wide enough for several elephants chest-to-chest), steep zigzag slope paved with stones set in mortar, smoothed over with centuries of traffic.

But before you hit the Palace proper, take the detour that leads you to Chitrashala, part of the Palace complex, but in the government’s care. Admission is free, and it is well worth a few hours of your time. If you are an art or history buff, set aside a much larger slot. Once used to teach artists, it is an open courtyard, with the surrounding corridors covered from floor to ceiling with exquisite murals painted in the unique style known as the Bundi School. All around—even on the ceiling—are colourful scenes from Hindu scriptures, depictions of court life, battles, hunts in which women seemed to play an equal part, wielding the same weapons as the menfolk (though it looked to me like the stock of the musket one lady carried was painted with a floral pattern), gods, rishis, warriors, servants, animals, both prey and domesticated...

Most are much the worse for the years and the extremes of climate, alas, but there seems to be precious little being done to prevent further decay. The caretaker will, if you ask, and if he’s not busy mowing the lawn (which, unlike the rest of the building, is in excellent shape) open up two dark rooms at the far end. The one called Sheesh Mahal has lost most of its mirror-work, but the walls of Rang Mahal are, even in the gloom, alive with vibrant colours and bold lines that give you an inkling of what the walls of the outer court looked like before time had its way with them.

Further up the slope, you enter the Garh Palace via the massive Hathi Pol. Climb up the steep stairway to the Rattan Daulat or Diwan E Aaam, with its marble throne. Pass on to Chatra Mahal, Phool Mahal and Badal Mahal, each built by different rajas, each unique in style and decoration. Closed doors and dim corridors lead off to areas that are out of bounds. One is very conscious of only having skimmed the surface. But I console myself that it isn’t just because the place is unlit, and possibly unsafe. Even in Kipling’s time, he says, no one knew “where the hill begins and where the Palace ends.” He wrote of rumours about underground chambers and passages deep into the hill, with some even extending into Taragarh. For now, you will have to content yourself with the Chitrashala and the Mahals, and every now and then, through a window, from a roof, look longingly at the domes and locked windows rambling up the hill, and letting your imagination take over. It isn’t hard to picture the daily scene, especially after a visit to the Chitrashala. Half-close your eyes, and the place fills up with fiercely moustached warriors and beautiful women, horses trot up the slope, and elephants lumber through the gates. I swear I hear the trace of the sound of ghungroos somewhere.

Yes, if the rest of the Palace opens up, you’ll find me in the line queuing up to take another look. Meanwhile, there’s Kipling.

***

Information

Places to stay.
Going by the signage, it looks like almost every property on the long street at the base of the palace (which was part of was once the original walled city) is a “heritage property” haveli, even if little of the original structure or décor remains. This section is very handy for its proximity to the palace and the fort, and to the market.
Top of the line here (and also the first to open its doors to guests, some twenty-plus years ago) is the Haveli Braj Bushanjee, whose owners have lavished much care and expense on keeping the place looking and feeling authentic. They have 24 rooms, and rates start at Rs 1200. Their restaurant is vegetarian, and guests are expected to order their meals well in advance. They also frown on alcohol on the premises. Ph: +91 747 2442322 / 2442127; email: res@kiplingsbundi.com; web: www.kiplingsbundi.com
I stayed at Haveli Katkoun, 30 seconds stroll away, a far smaller place, with just six rooms. It is, quite literally, a mom-and-pop show, with the entire family pitching in to cook, wait tables, tot up your bills and so on. Raghundan and Yadunandan, the owner’s sons, are both registered guides who can show you around the city. Katkoun’s garden restaurant serves all the standard fare, including non-vegetarian dishes, and also has beer. But you may want to try a nip of the very unique Kesar Kasturi liqueur, made from saffron and “20 other spices,” and guaranteed to warm you up. It is made from recipes that originated in royal households, and has only recently hit the market for commoners. Rooms rates: Rs 350 (single), Rs 500 (double), Rs 650 (double, with a view of the fort). Ph: +91 747 2444311; email raghunandansingh@yahoo.com; web www.haveli-katkoun.com/
I checked out a few other places; rates start as low as Rs 75 for a small single room with an even tinier toilet/bath (but with hot water), and most hover around the Rs 300 to Rs 500 range.
There is also the Royal Retreat, just inside the Palace’s outer gate, which has a great view. Couldn’t find a manager to show me the place, but I hear tariffs are from Rs 750 to Rs 1250. Ph: 2444426. And, away from the bustle, on the road that skirts Jait Sagar, Rajasthan Tourism runs Vrindawati, with rooms in the Rs 400-800 range. I didn’t look inside, but the building looked out of the uninviting standard-issue government tourism box. Ph: 2442473.
Eating out.
Aside from handcarts selling street food, there are few options available in the old town. Most of the tourist havelis have their own restaurants, though many are open only to their own guests. Cuisine usually includes what I refer to as the Goa Beach Menu—eggs, toast, noodles, pancakes, hot chocolate and the like for the white tourist trade—but many also serve Rajasthani dishes, including the eponymous thali, excellent fish, and the fiery laal maas, and a number of standard North Indian dishes.
Getting around.
Most of Bundi’s streets are too narrow for anything but two-wheeler traffic, but you can get auto- and cycle-rickshaws to ferry you around. Get your hotel to fix this for you, to save on the haggling, but as a general rule of thumb, there’s almost nothing more than thirty rupees away. You can also find cars, motorbikes and scooters for hire. Cars start at Rs 400 per day (Rs 500 with driver), motorbikes at Rs 200 per day. I was told one could hire bicycles as well, but didn’t spot any.
Things to see
Aside from the palace and the fort, you could wander around the old town, which shouldn’t take too long. The newer parts of Bundi are like any small town in India: narrow streets, open gutters, noisy traffic. Bundi was once famous for its Baoris, step wells that functioned as both water reservoirs and cool retreats for socialisation in the summer. Most are now nothing more than rubbish dumps, but the Raniji ki Baori, which is now a protected monument, is worth a short visit despite the stagnant water and the reek of pigeon and bat guano. The much-recommended 84-pillared cenotaph (Chaurasi Khambon ki Chhatri) was a disappointment. Littered, paan-stained, it’s really not worth the detour unless you’re a Shiv bhakt. And I swear it’s short of four pillars. I counted. Twice. Over to the east of the town, on the banks of the Jait Sagar reservoir, sits the lovely Sukh Mahal, where, I am told, Kipling stayed when he visited. In the tender care of the Irrigation department at the moment, it will soon be handed over to Rajasthan Tourism, I am informed. It has a fabulous view of the lake, and its two bedrooms are available to tourists via the appropriate government channels. On the ground floor, in what must surely be criminal idiocy, priceless ancient sculptures are set in concrete, spattered with the cement and paint from the building’s last clean-up. Another ten minutes’ drive away is Shar Bagh, which is full of cenotaphs erected in memory of past royalty. The Rajas’ memorials all have chhatris atop them, while those of the wives are smaller and flat-topped. Even smaller are those in memory of royals who died as children. Collect the caretaker who let you into Shar Bagh and take him along with you to the Shikar Burj (he has the keys to that part of the kingdom too), a royal hunting lodge, that is another ten minutes down the road.
General notes.
Bundi is in the desert state, Rajasthan, so is naturally ferociously hot in the summer. The rocks of the hillside radiate even more heat, and temperatures can approach 50°C. The monsoon brings some relief, but the best time to visit is the winter, where it can get decidedly nippy. Carry warm outerwear and dress in layers, so that you can shed some stuff in the mid-afternoon, when it can get hot, and pack in thermal inners for the nights. Lip balm and moisturiser are essentials, and a pair of sturdy shoes with non-slip soles for wandering around on the slopes. Speaking of which, if you’re short of wind or unsteady of foot, you’re pretty sure not to enjoy the trudge up the steep, cobbled path to the palace or the path up to the fort.
The Palace and most of the tourist sights are open sunrise to sunset, and entertainment after that is limited to the company you have over dinner, unless you have a room with TV or a good book.
Your cellphone should roam comfortably here. Web access is a pain: broadband hasn’t got here yet, and even the cybercafés function on dial-up connections. So if you’re one of those corporate high fliers who just have to be in touch all the time, take your laptop-cellphone combo or your handheld along.
Web
Rudyard Kipling’s take on Bundi
Bundi’s official website

Published in Outlook Traveller, January 2007.

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